Stuck on the Vatican’s slow track

Vatican documents don’t spend equal time on the assembly line.

Next Tuesday, the Congregation for Catholic Education is issuing a text on how religious and lay people share responsibilities in Catholic schools. The wider role of lay teachers is apparent to anyone familiar with church-run schools, and it’s been under discussion at the Vatican for the last couple of years.

But another document has been waiting in the wings at the education congregation for at least eight years — and it may not see center stage anytime soon. It’s on a trickier topic: the use of psychological sciences in seminary selection and training. Inside the Vatican, just the term “psychological testing” can sometimes start a heated debate.

Back in 1998, Pope John Paul II asked the congregation to draft guidelines on how psychological sciences can help “discern and promote maturity” among seminary candidates and seminarians. But some Vatican officials are wary of such testing and say it could be easily abused. A judgment on someone’s vocation, they say, cannot be reduced to a psychological assessment.

In 2002, CNS was told that the guidelines on psychological testing were just about ready to roll out. But something happened on the way to final approval. Enough doubts were raised that another five years of study was needed. In the meantime, the congregation gave more urgent attention to a document against admitting homosexuals to the priesthood, issued with much fanfare in 2005. Some thought that made the psychological testing document even more important.

When I’ve asked Vatican sources about the delay on psychological testing guidelines, they’ve told me the text has been “reformulated and restructured” in the light of consultation with in-house and outside experts.  One problem, they say, is that the Vatican is expected to issue a universal document to fit all seminaries, but the situations in seminaries — and psychological resources — vary greatly from country to country. Psychological testing also touches on the sensitive issue of human rights, in particular the right to privacy, and that’s also been debated at length.

The Vatican doesn’t usually announce the progress (or lack of it)  of documents under preparation. That’s one reason why the CNS Rome bureau lays out $100 each year to purchase a thick book called “Activity of the Holy See,” which includes annual reports from Roman Curia agencies. I opened the most recent edition and, turning to the Congregation for Catholic Education, read that the document on psychological sciences was still being worked on.

Then I made a phone call and found out the congregation plans to discuss the latest draft of the document at its plenary session in January. Is the finish line in sight?

“We hope so,” my source said. Then, lest he whet journalistic appetites, he added quickly: “Of course, we’re not sure about that.”

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